We’ve heard a lot of talk about the higher education bubble in the last year or two. For the most part, the bubble talk has focussed on money — on the ridiculous sums now demanded by private colleges and universities to feed, house, and babysit aging adolescents as they dawdle in the antechamber of adult life. It was not all that long ago that I was sitting in Mory’s, a dining club on the Yale campus, lunching with the father of a friend, when the subject of tuition costs came up. “Do you realize,” he said, “that it will cost $10,000 to attend Yale College next year?” We had a moment of silence over the Mory’s Cup as we contemplated that august figure. These days, of course, it costs north of $50,000 per annum to attend Yale or anywhere else that would impress your neighbors.
But it is not only the skyrocketing costs of education that make the story of American higher education in the early twenty-first century a fit subject for a new epilogue to Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, Charles Mackay’s classic study of bubbles and other manifestations of mass hysteria. (“New houses were built in every direction; an illusory prosperity shone over the land, and so dazzled the eyes of the whole nation, that none could see the dark cloud on the horizon announcing the storm that was too rapidly approaching.”)
The cost of so-called higher soi disant “education” is only part of the story. There are other factors inflating the bladder that is contemporary academia, from the cancer-like growth of administration to the descent of humanities into a mephitic swamp of politicized hermeticism and grievance mongering. Imagine employing someone with the title “Dean of Diversity”! And yet, mirabile dictu, there are people, grown ups even, who are employed in that capacity in hundreds of universities across the country. Imagine promoting programs in “Women’s Studies” and similar exercises isn’t pseudo-scholarship but real activism and pretending such travesties somehow advance the liberal arts. But of course nearly all colleges and universities are littered with such rubbish.
And then there is that great jewel of Orwellian Newspeak, “affirmative action,” a policy that was originally meant to forbid exclusion on the basis of race but has since come to be a potent weapon in the effort to enforce the ever-expanding empire of racial, sexual, and ethnic political correctness.
Our former paper of record, itself a champion of all things politically correct, ran a front page story on affirmative action in the college admissions process a few days ago. “On College Forms, a Question of Race, or Races, Can Perplex,” ran the headline, and the long, life-style story presented a sympathetic portrait of anxious college aspirants around the country who, in order to gain admission to a “good” college, scour their heritage for a dollop of black or hispanic blood.
Before Emory University in Atlanta upgraded its computer system about a decade ago, if an applicant signaled that he or she was African-American and white, or African-American and Asian, someone in the admissions office would make the judgment call that the student was African-American because there were no set guidelines on how to define an applicant’s race.
“We had to pick one,” Jean Jordan, the dean of admission, said. “I’d say it was pretty arbitrary.” Actually, it may not have been so arbitrary. Emory, like other colleges, was acting at least in part to ensure a sizable African-American student population, which the college’s leaders consider an institutional priority.
You don’t say? Blood will tell. As one counsellor noted, “If a kid is unsure I say check multiple boxes. If they’re Caucasian and African-American, I’d let them know that it would probably be beneficial to put yourself down as African-American or multiracial.”
The extraordinary thing about this story in the Times is that this game of ethnic and racial chicanery should be presented straight, advice for concerned parents and ambitious students looking, as the article puts it, to “game” the system. We meet the young woman from Hawaii “who checked the boxes for Native Hawaiian, Asian-American and white” and the Californian “who said she was white (Irish and German), black and affiliated with two American Indian tribes” — both were admitted to Rice. And what, I wonder, about our son, a white boy living in Fairfield County, Connecticut? Bill Clinton was denominated our first black President by Toni Morrison. Perhaps we can get Ms. Morrison to provide a similar dispensation for young Master Kimball? Or perhaps he can argue, with all the authority of the latest PoMo theorists, that since race, like sex and nationality, is just a social construction, he is really a female black Indian from Nigeria? Maybe it’s worth a try. If, that is, he decides to go to college in lieu of getting on with his life.
In the 1930s and early 1940s, Alfred Rosenberg and his colleagues expended a lot of energy trying to determine the ethnic origins of people. It mattered a lot then whether you could claim to be “Aryan” in a way that satisfied Herr Rosenberg. It mattered even more whether he thought you qualified as a Jew or Gypsy or Slav. As the American higher education establishment endeavors to achieve its racial and ethnic goals for their student body and faculty, they could use people like Rosenberg. Really, they are up to the same sort of thing. When it comes to admission and promotion, neither Rosenberg nor your average college dean or admissions officer cares about outmode qualities like merit or accomplishment. What they care about is a suite of politically correct attributes: was your mother, or at least your grandmother or great grandmother, black or Hawaiian or Mexican? Alfred Rosenberg and his peers pioneered all the necessary techniques of discrimination. The fact that they favored a different population is neither here nor there. The goal is racial and ethnic purity.
I was going to say that America’s educational establishment could learn a lot from Alfred Rosenberg. The truth is, they already have.